Sometimes I believe in book karma. I pick up a book for one reason and by the end it’s given me dozens more reasons to recommend it. This was the case with Ma and Me a memoir by Cambodian …
Sometimes I believe in book karma. I pick up a book for one reason and by the end it’s given me dozens more reasons to recommend it. This was the case with Ma and Me a memoir by Cambodian American journalist Putsata Reang. I began reading it because I thought I might slip this column in before Mother’s Day, especially as much of Reang’s memoir is about her close but often fractious relationship with her mother.
Mom’s Day came and went, and while this would be a great book for moms and their offspring to read together and discuss, the title only discloses one corner of this treasure chest of a tale. The jacket illustration, an eye-catching illustration of a crocodile and a tiger each emitting a single tear, is a more subtle but apt description of the strong characters and emotions inside. “Go in the water, there’s the crocodile. Come up on land, there’s the tiger,” is a saying in Khmer, the national language of Cambodia. Both mother and daughter come to know this all too well throughout their lives, but for different reasons.
Most dramatically, Reang, her mother, father, and siblings fled Cambodia in 1975 just as the Khmer Rouge was stalking southward, nearing their family’s village. Staying meant certain death for her father, and excruciating misery at best for everyone else. But the boat journey across the South China Sea under the burning sun was like not knowing where the crocodile lurked. Reang, the youngest of four children, and still a baby, was barely alive when they finally reached an American naval base in the Philippines. “Failure to thrive” a doctor wrote in his notes after examining her in Corvallis, Oregon, their final destination.
Reang leads us both back in time and through the years that follow. She lays bare what it takes for an immigrant’s daughter to thrive—slowly, often painstakingly, and yet not without humor, revelation, and joy. With well-honed reporting skills, she digs deep into family memories—summers spent on Willamette Valley farms picking berries from dawn to dusk while friends spent theirs playing sports, nights napping in a student health center while her mother scrubbed its floors, a first trip back to Cambodia with Ma to meet the family members who survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and to mourn those who didn’t.
Reang’s experience is not unlike that of many who’ve come to this country to escape war, violence, and economic disaster. Her parents left behind the things we often take for granted— a close community of friends and family, a comfortable home, a growing career — and worked extraordinarily hard to rebuild those things. But Reang takes this familiar structure and fills it with gold: unique and intimate stories of growing up, coming of age, and struggling to find one’s identity in places that are both home and not home.
One of the most significant struggles for Reang (and for Ma) is her early and ongoing recognition that she is more attracted to women than men. While Ma initially seems supportive, her actions say otherwise, setting up dates with sons of Cambodian friends and reminding Reang to respect their culture. Reang is continuously torn between her desire to find the kind of love that will sustain her as an adult and the mother’s love that saved her life as a baby.
As someone whose ancestors came to this country many generations ago, I found Reang’s memoir eye-opening and thought-provoking. I have no connection to family members who left homes and familiar communities, no memory of the pain of departure or the struggle to connect with people who can’t comprehend what you’ve left behind. Reang’s deep reflection and journalist’s perspective reveals that leaving one culture for another affects us in so many large and small ways, filtering differently through each generation. By the end of her memoir, the crocodile and tiger are still forces to be reckoned with, but Reang proves that with time and love they can be tamed.
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